It only took one day for Peter Combs’ family to shatter.
February 18, 1997
Early morning. I was sound asleep in my bed until a loud noise startled me awake. It was a metallic sound, like someone dropping pots and pans onto a concrete floor. It was an unusual sound, one that did not belong during the early morning hours. Had I only dreamed it? My heart pounding against my chest led me to believe I had not. As my vision came into focus I sat up in my bed and looked around the room. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Everything looked and sounded just as it should. Perhaps the sound had only been a part of my dream. Maybe it was like when you dream that you are falling only to wake up in your bed wrestling with the sheets. I breathed a sigh of relief, and unclenched my fists. I was thankful that the noise had not been evidence of another argument between my parents. Those were loud, vulgar, and occasionally violent. Sometimes their arguments seemed to last for days, spilling over into every room in the house, no unbreakable item left unbroken.
Just when I was entertaining the thought of allowing myself to drift back to sleep, another sound jolted me back into reality. In the distance I heard a whimper, but more like a choked back sob, one that you try very hard to keep in, but it just forces it’s way out. It was faint, but it had not been imagined. A second sob confirmed the first. This time I knew to whom it belonged. I had heard Rachel cry before, many times in fact, but I had never heard her cry like this before.
Immediately, I began to asses the situation. From past experiences I could only come up with one good reason why she could be crying—she had been “punished” by my parents. But I (along with our neighbors no doubt) would have heard her “punishment.” Is that what the loud noise had been? From where I lay in bed, I had a clear vision of the path one or both of my parents would have to take in order to exit the “scene of the crime.” After a few moments, when they did not appear, I realized they had not been the reason for her tears this time. As comforting as that should have been, it scared me to think of what could be wrong. I pushed the blankets off of me and climbed out of bed.
I cautiously made my way down the hall toward the sound of her voice coming from the bathroom. At the door I listened for a second (she was still whimpering) and then timidly knocked. Nothing. I knocked again, this time calling her name. Still no answer. I tried the doorknob and found that it turned. Slowly pushing the door open I called her name again. This time there was no doubt about it. She was either ignoring me or something was wrong. Once inside the bathroom, I found Rachel sitting on the floor in a corner. Her knees were raised to her chin, and her arms were wrapped around her legs. Her face was hot with tears, and her hair was disheveled. Her eyes were puffy and mostly closed. She was shaking as if she were cold. She did not acknowledge my presence as I kneeled down in front of her.
“Rachel, what’s wrong?” I asked.
Nothing. I reached out my hand and touched her arm, and she shrieked as if my touch had burned her skin. The shaking turned into a rocking motion back and forth, side to side.
“Are you hurt?” I tried again.
“Yes.” It was faint, but it was a response.
“Where? Where are you hurt?” I asked anxiously.
At that moment, she began to hit her head against the walls; her whole body shaking uncontrollably. Not knowing what to do, I ran out of the room to find help and ran into my brother, Jack.
“Something’s wrong with Rachel!” I said, out of breath.
“I know, she’s weird,” he said, not hearing the panic in my voice, or not concerned about it if he did. I’m not sure which one.
“Get Mom and Dad!” I said more sternly. I wasn’t very fond of the “Rachel is worthless” jokes, and I certainly didn’t feel like putting up with it during this moment.
What happened next is all a blur. As I watched the chaos unfold in front of me, it was as if everything moved at a super-fast pace. Everyone spoke so quickly that I could barley keep up with the words they were saying. Yet at the same time, I felt that my internal clock had slowed down. Each thought that crossed my mind, full and long, and so many of them. So many questions, but no answers. It was almost dizzying, like I was not really watching everything from my own eyes.
At some point, the two dimensions met in the middle, and the internal and external clocks reconciled. By this time my whole family was up and rushing around. Devon had carried Rachel from the bathroom and had set her down on her bed. Mom and Dad were trying to talk to her and calm her down, but she kept thrashing about and kicking their hands away. Joyce was on the phone with 911. The operator instructed her to place Rachel on the floor and told her not to attempt to hold her down. My parents complied with their instruction, and she continued to shake. Soon, an ambulance arrived and they took her away on a stretcher.
When we arrived at the hospital the doctors did not have anything to say to us. They were running tests, and would for the next 24 hours. She was unconscious, and when anyone would touch her she screamed as she had done just earlier that day. While we were sitting in the waiting room, my parents did not speak much to each other. Perhaps they both silently wondered if the other was responsible for this. The truth of the matter was that they were both responsible. At one moment my dad leaned towards my mom.
“What about all of her spankings?” he asked, “what if they see?”
“Not now,” she said quietly but sternly.
It would be 24 before his question was answered. Just 24 hours before a detective would pose her own question to them. Questions about the layers of scars they found on her body. Their only answer to explain the scars would be that Rachel was “clumsy”—a mantra that they took with them all the way to trial, and finally to prison.
Twenty-four hours can change what took a lifetime of moments to create. It has the power to cut off your present from your past, and set your life on a new course, toward a new future.
On February 18th, 1997, a 19-year old girl decided she’d taken her last beating. In the early morning hours before anyone else was awake, she spent her last moments alone, as she had undoubtedly been her entire life. The styrofoam cup she held in her hand was full of the antifreeze she was sure would take her life and end her hell. Twenty-four hours after she closed her eyes to a world that didn’t love her, they opened once again to a room full of doctors and detectives. In just 24 hours, everything had changed.